Early American Faith: Pennepack Baptist Church and Its Dramatic Founding

EliasKeachIt is still an active congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1688.  It was the eighth Baptist church founded in America and today is the seventh oldest still surviving.  Its founding emanated from the dramatic conversion of its founding pastor amidst the most unconventional and unusual circumstances I’ve ever heard of.  Read on.

Those of the Baptist faith, like many others who dared challenge the authority of the Church of England, were persecuted.  There were two groups of Baptists in England – General and Particular.  John Smyth, a General Baptist, is considered to be the founder of the first Baptist church.  Those of the Particular sect were more Calvinistic in their theology.

One of the first Particular Baptists to come to America was Roger Williams, who first settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.  He was convinced that the Church of England was corrupt and its theology false.  He considered becoming a missionary but later accepted a teaching position with a Salem congregation in 1634.

He was a Separatist, and of course, in direct conflict with the Puritans.  When the Puritans had enough of his teachings, they banished him to Rhode Island which the Massachusetts colonists considered to be the  “Stinke into which all the Rest of the Colonyes empty their Hereticks.”  By 1638, Williams had founded the First Baptist Church of Providence.

One of Williams’ protégés, Thomas Dungan, had come to America with his mother and stepfather when he was around four years old.  He studied under Williams’ ministry and in 1684 left Rhode Island and migrated south to Pennsylvania.  The colony had been founded by William Penn in 1682, meant to be a refuge from religious persecution.

Immigrants of the Baptist faith hailing from England, Wales and Ireland began to arrive and settled to the north and east of the Village of Philadelphia.  The Welsh were from Radonshire, the town where the subject of yesterday’s Surname Saturday article, David Marple, lived.

Dungan founded a church at Cold Springs near the Delaware River, but he would only live another four years.  The congregation survived only until 1702.  However, the stage was being set for an unusual set of circumstances which led to the eventual founding of Pennepek Baptist Church.

BenjaminKeachOne well-known Baptist preacher in England, Benjamin Keach, had a son named Elias, born in 1666.  Benjamin’s life was challenged by religious persecution, spending time in prison and seeing his books burned, yet he remained in England until his death in 1704.  At the age of twenty, Elias immigrated to Penn’s colony.  Among his belongings were a black robe and a white band, usually indications of one’s calling as a minister of the gospel.

However, those “props” were merely a ruse, for you see, young Elias was not following in his father’s footsteps, nor was he escaping religious persecution in England.  According to the church web site, he was known as a “very wild spark” or a “wild scamp”.  Or, as the Historical Sketch of the Lower Dublin (or Pennepek) Baptist Church put it, Elias was a “gay, wild, thoughtless young man”.  Pretending to be a minister was his way of mocking his well-known Baptist preacher father’s faith apparently.

Benjamin was so well known that those who had come from England, Wales and Ireland wanted to hear his son preach – surely he was a “chip off the old block”!  He must have been quite the actor for he “brazenly and boldly” accepted the invitation.

No one knows what the text of his message was.  The church historian supposes he could have had copies of Benjamin’s sermons in his possession, or perhaps just repeated a sermon he’d heard his father preach before.  Whatever he was saying, or acting out, surely surprised no one more than himself.  The Historical Sketch provided the following dramatic details:

On his landing he dressed in black, and wore a band in order to pass for a Minister.  The project succeeded to his wishes, and many people resorted to hear the young London divine.  He performed well enough till he had advanced pretty far in the sermon.  Then, stopping short, he looked like a man astonished.  The audience concluded he had been seized with a sudden disorder; but, on asking what the matter was, received from him a confession of the imposture with tears in his eyes, and much trembling.  Great was his distress, though it ended happily; for from this time he dated his conversion.  He heard there was a Baptist Minister at Cold Spring, in Bucks County, to whom he repaired to seek counsel and comfort, and by him was baptized.

While mocking the faith of his father, Elias Keach had himself been convicted and converted in the middle of his mocking, staged performance.  The Baptist minister who he submitted himself to for baptism was Thomas Dungan.  His dramatic story sounds just like the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus taught, but it would be a few years before he returned to his father in England.

Instead, following his radical conversion, he immediately began preaching the Gospel, sent out from Dungan’s Cold Spring congregation.  He visited the area known as Pennepek and in November of 1687 baptized four persons.

In January of 1688 the Pennepek Baptist Church was organized by nine men and three women with Elias Keach as their pastor.  The church’s name came from a nearby creek, variously recorded as Pemmepeka, Pennepek or Pennypack, where, conveniently, baptisms were later conducted.  An account of the church’s history recorded:

Sometime after, about the 11th month, [January, 1688], by the advice of Elias Keach and with the aforesaid Baptized persons consent, a day was set apart to seek God by fasting and prayer, in order to form ourselves into a Church state.  Whereupon Elias Keach was accepted and received for our Pastor and we sat down in communion at the Lord’s table.  Also at the same time Samuel Vaus was chosen and by Elias Keach with laying on of hands, ordained to be a Deacon.

It was later referred to as the first Baptist Church in Pennsylvania.  Although Elias was the founding pastor of the congregation, his dramatic conversion and zeal for the gospel led him to travel extensively throughout New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland as well.  Thus, the Pennepek church was the “mother church” from which several congregations were eventually founded.

Some who heard Elias preach in the neighboring colonies, especially New Jersey, joined his congregation at Pennepek as “general members”.  As the Pennepek congregation grew it was determined that separate congregations should be established instead of congregants maintaining a “general membership” at the mother church.  Still, however, Elias made the rounds and preached at these church branches which, of course, left Pennepek without a minster at times.

To accommodate Elias’ absences, men of the Pennepek church, most often Samuel Jones and John Watts, would speak.  In some ways, however, they occasionally overstepped their bounds as laymen.  On one such occasion, John Watts decided to administer the ordinance of baptism to a woman who actually never became a formal member of the congregation.  She later joined the Quaker church.

Other incidences and doctrinal disagreements arose, perhaps in light of Elias’ prolonged absences, such as the practice of laying on of hands and the teachings of Predestination.  In 1689 Elias was replaced by John Watts, who was assisted by three other gifted men.

Pennepack_1869Steadily the congregation, blessed with consistent and present leadership, grew to number forty-six by 1700.  Elias, Benjamin Keach’s prodigal son, finally returned to England in 1692.  At some point apparently the name of the church was changed (or at least the spelling) to Pennepack, but was also at one time referred to as the Lower Dublin Baptist Church.  The church founded at Cold Spring by Thomas Dungan joined Pennepek after its closure in 1702.

Welsh Tract Baptist Church

In 1701 another group of Welsh Baptists arrived from South Wales, led by Thomas Griffith.  According to one historical account, the group was “received in a loving manner (on account of the gospel) by the congregation meeting in Philadelphia and Pennepek who held the same faith with us (excepting the ordinance of Laying-on-of-hands on every particular member).”

While this group, later called Welsh Tract Baptists, remained for a time with the Pennepek church, they later formed their own congregation in New Castle County, Delaware.  Next week’s article will continue with more history of the Welsh Tract Baptist Church and the eventual establishment of the first Baptist Association in America.

Note: I wrote an article earlier this year in a series about early American faith, entitled “Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Baptists”.  In case you missed it, you can read it here.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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